Mary as Global Icon

The historian Christopher Dawson acknowledged in a 1951 essay the difficulty in explaining the Christian view of history. For Christians, God’s actual involvement in historical time through a particular Person and place is a theological principle around which secular history occurs. For people listening to the Christian message for the first
Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
Miri Rubin, Yale University Press, $35, 560 pages
 The historian Christopher Dawson acknowledged in a 1951 essay the difficulty in explaining the Christian view of history. For Christians, God’s actual involvement in historical time through a particular Person and place is a theological principle around which secular history occurs. For people listening to the Christian message for the first time (such as the Greeks and citizens of the polytheistic Roman Empire), this seemed ridiculous, and for many people since as well. Dawson argued that it was very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for non-believers to understand the Christian understanding of historical change. To Christians, “the real meaning of history is not the apparent meaning that historians have studied and philosophers have attempted to explain.” The Incarnation has upended the secular view of history, and therefore events that have little significance to that world, such as the fortunes of an obscure Middle Eastern tribe, turn out to have world-changing (and, to believers, divine) significance. 
The theological claims presented by Christianity require thinking along two historical tracks at the same time. On the one hand, there is God working through time. On the other, there is the massive historical detail and endless chain of events that must be integrated into that principle and understood in light of that religious sensibility. This difficulty becomes especially complicated when the subject is Christianity itself or its claims.
The history of Mary is perhaps especially illustrative of this double difficulty. There is no doubt that over the centuries the figure of Mary has come in many forms and served many purposes, from suffering mother to idealized woman. A rich tapestry of legend, interventions, and attributes have built up around her in a way that is in some respects far removed from the young peasant Jewish girl of the gospels. For the secular historian, Mary is the perfect example of cultural accretion over time, acquiring bits from the cult of Isis, bits from images of imperial power or medieval motherhood, and (latterly) perhaps a bit of the American housewife. Her actual existence is beside the point. For the Christian, this cannot be the end of the story. While recognizing historical change over time, for the Christian such events are charged with meaning.
Miri Rubin nicely accommodates both these views in Mother of God — a comprehensive look at Mary from the early Church to the Reformation. Her goal, she writes in the introduction, is to
offer a historical understanding of the processes which made Mary so utterly available to humans, and utterly desirable as a friendly face of the divine core. In Mary the feminine became the universal conduit to self-understanding, to learning about emotions and how these might be shared and expressed.
A scrupulous scholar, author of previous books on the Middle Ages, and professor of history at Queen Mary University of London, Rubin has a healthy respect for the people who have venerated Mary and does not question that they believed what they said they believed about her. The text is therefore generally free of the ideological overlay that accompanies much contemporary scholarship on religion, which views religious faith as something that is generated as a byproduct of historical or materialist factors.
Thus, while Rubin does not ignore the secular uses to which Mary has been put through the centuries, she generally lets the texts and people speak for themselves, adding context and explication where necessary. And not only text: The book contains several dozen full-color illustrations of paintings, mosaics, and religious icons of all sorts, from Egypt to Oxfordshire, Hungary to South America. They provide a nice emphasis to the fact that for much of Christian history, the faith was lived visually and orally as much as through texts.
Some of the reviews have taken to task the Church’s view of women as expressed through Mary. In the London Review of Books, Hilary Mantel wrote that “the cult of Mary can seem quaint and charming; but it introduced into the life of every small Catholic girl a terrifying bind, and into the mind of every small Catholic boy a standard impossible for women to meet,” and imposed a “frozen concept of femininity.” But even she acknowledges that the narrowed vision of Mary’s role was more a function of that time and place rather than a full appreciation of the meaning the Church has poured into her life.
The story, however, is more complex. Often Mary and her invocation have been used as a rebuke to those in power, and as a force of liberation; the powerful veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which appeared in the 16th century as a result of Mary’s appearance to an indigenous convert, was at first resisted by the ruling Spanish clergy, but this is only one such example. Another is the Legion of Mary, which united African women in Zambia around the image of a martial Mary.
Mother of God ranges across the centuries, from the Mary of the Gospels to the Reformation. The book is divided into six parts, covering subjects such as “Mary in Liturgy, Song, and Prayer” and “Mary as Queen and Reformer.” Rubin also addresses Jewish and Islamic views of Mary, bringing to light the theological and rhetorical disputes that occurred among the three faiths in the early years of Christianity. A God who was born of a mortal woman was, some argued, an affront to the divine majesty. Even among groups of Christians, the claims that a simple peasant woman bore the Word was a struggle to understand and comprehend. Rubin helpfully puts these debates in context.
Mother of God closes with the Reformation, where Mary’s role was retained but limited. Martin Luther, for example, thought Mary presented an example of God’s grace, though one that needed to be stripped of medieval accretions. One of these accretions was the widespread belief in her immaculate conception; Rubin discusses the fascinating medieval debates on the subject, which pitted Bernard of Clairvaux against those who supported the doctrine. Europe, by that time, had become thoroughly “marianized”; the practice of the faith was seen as inseparable from Marian devotion. But the reformers thought that devotion to God’s Mother crowded out God Himself, and they worked out their own relationship to Mary, which was focused on her limited mentions in Scripture.
But while Mary’s stature was being reduced (or properly relegated, depending on one’s view), in the New World the opposite was occurring. Thanks to the crusading spirit of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Mary was taken across the oceans to millions for the first time. There, she was introduced to the indigenous peoples in their native languages, and she came to be seen as protector and patroness of the Americas. In passing, Rubin confirms another one of Dawson’s insights: that whatever other motivations there were, the colonization of the New World was animated by a sincere and long-lasting mission of evangelization. And Mary was in the vanguard of that mission.
It is clear from this study that the history of Europe is almost incomprehensible without assessing and understanding Mary and her significance. In looking forward to the present, Rubin offers some tentative conclusions on Mary’s role as “global icon.” Like many other traditional features of Christian life, Mary has been appropriated by a world that has rejected belief, but still feels a need to believe. Mary, in her role as Mother of God, reflects the profoundest mysteries of human life, which the world continues to revere.

Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.


  • Gerald J. Russello

    Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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